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Heisei Transformations: Education shifting online, giving kids more options

Students of N High School stare into their computer screens as they self-study in Osaka's Chuo Ward, on Dec. 5, 2018. (Mainichi/Maiko Umeda)

OSAKA -- In a room in one commercial building in the busy shopping district of Shinsaibashi here in western Japan, roughly 50 young people were working on their laptop computers. They are the students of "N High School," and they put on headphones, stare at their screens seriously and "participate" in their online classes.

N High School began as an "internet school" in April 2016, serving a wide area with the main school actually located in Uruma, in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. In addition to required subjects, there are also a wide variety of electives offered, like programming lectures and university prep courses -- all available online.

Along with their home courses, there is also a course that can be attended at one of eight campuses nationwide. This April, that number will increase to 13 locations. Roughly 7,500 students are currently enrolled, and among them is the princess of the ice who won the figure staking grand prix last year -- 16-year-old Rika Kihira. According to Kadokawa Dwango educational corporation, the operator of N High, the number of students is expected to reach 10,000 by the middle of the 2019 academic year.

Yuya Kusuzawa, 16, a second-year student at the Shinsaibashi campus, is the only student undergoing N High School's special "active learner system." In principle, time is divided into class periods for students attending the campuses, but if a student is recognized as having a clear goal, they can use the system to rearrange one day's worth of class time devoted to their particular needs. For Kusuzawa, who dreams of becoming a brain scientist, he had been focusing almost entirely on preparing for the entrance exam to a national university's medical school since last summer. "Being able to make up for areas that come in short on your own when you have already covered the basics is the best part of N High," he said.

Meanwhile, fellow second-year student Yoshihisa Kaino, 17, does not only have his studies on which to focus, as he cannot neglect his duties as the chief technology officer (CTO) of an IT venture firm in Osaka. Wanting to learn programming, Kaino transferred from an industrial high school near his hometown of Taishi, Hyogo Prefecture, to N High's Shinsaibashi campus, where he now commutes every morning.

Now, everything has changed. Half of his time is spent on extracurricular programs, and the time he spends tuning into the video feeds of his required classes are actually his free time. From last fall, he began interning three times a week at an IT company in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, and learned basic practical skills for the IT industry.

It was around the same time that a webpage he made was praised in the industry, and he got an offer to become the CTO at the small venture firm. Now, he works on developing web services for the company, and it has now become clear to him that he wants to start his own company doing just that.

Many of the classes at N High are broadcast live from a Tokyo studio, and students can attend classes even from distant locations. If the student sends in questions, the instructor in the studio can handle them in real time, and while the whole process occurs through the internet, the two sides create a classroom atmosphere.

Yoshihisa Kaino, foreground, takes part in an internship at an IT company in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, on Dec. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Maiko Umeda)

"We are considering using VR so that even if the student is at home, then they can experience being in the classroom," said Nobuo Kawakami, a director at Kadokawa Dwango education and one of the founders of IT firm Dwango Co.

-- Gov't doing more to promote 'edtech' for next generation

For many years, Japan has focused on the school as the "place" for education, but the latest communication technology is now challenging the definition of that "place." Education based on IT is called "edtech," and is being introduced all over the world. The concept was originally developed around the mid-2000s in the United States, and while it has slowly made its way into the private sector in Japan, the government is now starting to promote the system as well.

The Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade has been particularly pivotal in this endeavor. In 2017, the ministry opened an industrial education office, and gathered experts for a research council just last year. Daisuke Asano, who heads the office, said, "The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology tends to be influenced by the traditions and authority of public education. First, we have to create an ideal framework."

The government has called the more-digitized next generation "Society 5.0," and is expecting that much of their work will be done by AI. But people required in such an environment cannot be created by an extension of conventional education. That's where edtech comes in.

In its very first report, the ministry's research council pointed to changes brought about by edtech such as the expansion of being able to take individual courses online, the amount of extracurricular activity opportunities have increased and that the concepts of school year and graduation have weakened. "The norm of being in school from morning to afternoon itself will crumble," the report projected.

But there is another factor that is leading to the high demand for edtech services like N High. According to an Education Ministry survey, there was a record of some 144,000 elementary, junior high and high school students who were absent from classes for 30 days or more during the 2017 academic year. Compared to 1991, in the early part of the Heisei era, that number has more than doubled. N High also has students who have stopped attending classes at conventional schools.

In the conventional classroom, instruction must be aimed to an average level, giving birth to both students who cannot keep up with the level of class content and those who become bored by the simplicity. As long as the current education system cannot solve this problem, "internet schools" like N High School and other edtech are close to "providing children with a new choice for education," said Principal Hirokazu Okuhira of N High.

(Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Osaka City News Department)

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